Czech Republic: scepticism without euro-scepticism?

Malé Kyšice, obecní úřad, evropské volby
Photo: Akron/ Wikimedia Commons
CC BY-SA 3.0

As elsewhere in Europe, elections to the European Parliament on 23-24 May in the Czech Republic will be more of a trial of domestic strength, than a contest over EU issues.

 The EP elections come at a time when Czech politics is still in flux following the ‘political earthquake’ unleashed by national parliamentary elections in October 2013. These saw the eclipse of established right-wing parties; sharp electoral setbacks for the Social Democrats (ČSSD), the main party of the Czech left; and a dramatic breakthrough by the new ANO movement of billionaire Andrej Babiš.

The question in the minds of many observers is whether the Euro-elections – the first national poll in a year that will also see crucial Senate and local elections – will confirm this changed political landscape

 Early indications are that they will.

 Projections by Pollwatch 2014 (based largely on general polling data) suggest that ANO and ČSSD, who have governed together in an uneasy centrist coalition since January, will top the polls with around 22 per cent of the vote enabling each to elect 6 MEPs. Polling by SANEP which asked specifically about the European elections broadly echoes this, but gives ANO a clear lead.

European elections SANEP1 This is good news for Babiš’s movement whose strategy of presenting itself a non-ideological reform movement and hand-picking high profile technocrats and businesspeople as candidates seems, for the moment, still to be paying off. The movement’s EP list is headed by the ultra-credible Pavel Telička, a vastly experienced former diplomat who headed the Czech Republic’s EU accession negotiating team in 1998-2002 and briefly served as a European Commissioner. 

 Although generally light on policy, ANO has published a long (not to say long-winded) programme for the European elections (reportedly written by Telička) spelling out where it stands on Europe. The movement is broadly pro-integration and pro-business, stressing the need to use the EU pragmatically in the Czech national interest, primarily by as vehicle for economic growth.

Its MEPs are likely to find a home in the small, diverse (and increasingly divided) liberal ALDE group in the European Parliament. ALDE leader Guy Verhofstadt recently met Andrej Babiš in Prague and was at pains to refute any suggestion that the ANO leader was a post-Soviet style oligarch or a Czech Berlusconi. The movement’s raw pragmatism may, however, lead to difficulties with both domestic and European partners. As finance minister Andrej Babiš had to quickly backtrack on remarks against opposing any accelerated timetable for Euro adoption

 The Social Democrats can draw limited comfort from the polls. A drop from 7 to 6  MEPs would be a minor setback – especially given the scaling back of oveall Czech representation in the EP from 22 to 21 – and would be more than sufficient retain a safe berth in the European Socialists and Democrats group. However, while (on current projections) to matching ANO,  ČSSD may againt be vulnerable to a surge Babiš’s movement. The Social Democrats chose a somewhat unlikely newcomer, the sociologist and ecological activist Jan Keller, as their lead candidate, who clearly lacks Telička’s gravitas and credibility and has otherwise waged a predictable campaign stressing its pro-European and pro-social credentials.

 Two small pro-European parties of the centre-right, the Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL) and TOP09 each appear seem set to gain two MEPs. Although on opposite sides of the domestic political divide – KDU-ČSL is a junior partner in the current coalition, TOP09 in opposition – both will probably end up sitting with the European People’s Party in the EP.

 Eurosceptics old and new

 On current forecasts May’s elections seem likely to prove disappointing for both traditional eurosceptic parties of left and right – and some of their would-be populist replacements.

 As in 2009, the hard-line Communists (KSČM) are likely to finish a strong third in the European elections with 15-16 per cent support and to seem set to retain their current four MEPs. Although usually put in the eurosceptic camp, KSČM opposition to the EU has, in fact, mellowed over the years – the party’s lead candidate Kateřina Konečná even spoke in one interview of the party wanting to return the EU to its founding principles (building peace and social cohesion according to her).

But the Communist take on the Union is still highly critical with its democratic deficit, stress on deregulation and competition and close alignment with the US in foreign policy (most recently on Crimea) being top among the party’s top dislikes.

The KSČM European campaign, however, has been undermined by accusations of financial impropriety and false expenses claims against its long-serving, high-profile senior MEP Miroslav Ransdorf – now shunted from first to fourth place on the party’s electoral list.  Reputational damage to Ransdorf and an influx of radical left MEPs from Southern Europe  seems likely to see a waning of Czech Communist influence in the United European Left- Nordic Green Left group of which Ransdorf is the outgoing deputy chair.

 While the Communists are treading water, the other major eurosceptic force in Czech politics – the right-wing Civic Democrats (ODS), who sit with the British Tories in the European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR) group, are bracing themselves for heavy losses. Traditionally one of the pillars of the Czech political system, ODS was humiliatingly cut down to minor party status in the October 2013 parliamentary elections after the government it led collapsed in political scandal. The party’s new leader – the former education minister and professor of political science Petr Fiala – seems to have stemmed the party’s reputation for engrained corruption and rallied its core support.

 But although chastened by defeat and led by a fresh face the Civic Democrats have lost none of their trademark euroscepticism – indeed if anything the new party leadership is more eurosceptic than its predecessor. While not advocating withdrawal from the EU – now the position of ODS founder, the former Czech president Václav Klaus – the party is demanding a referendum on adoption of the Euro and, if possible, negotiation of a Czech opt-out from the single currency.

 ODS seems set to lose the bulk of its nine MEPs. Projections suggest the party will struggle to win two seats in the European Parliament and it is even possible that the serving ODS leader in the EP Jan Zahradil may find himself the party’s lone representative. Either scenario would leave the ECR, if it re-forms, a potentially awkward tandem between the market-oriented British Tories and the Catholic conservatives of the Polish Law and Justice Party (PiS).

 One new eurosceptic challenger is the populist Dawn of Direct Democracy grouping which won seats in the Czech parliament last year. Dawn takes a highly critical stance towards the EU which it sees as manipulated in favour of larger states and threatening to Czech economic interests. However, the group’s Euro-elections challenge has been blunted by decision of the movement’s founder Tomio Okamura to make the lawyer and former Roma rights advocate Klára Samková the movement’s lead candidate.

Samková’s erratic, but previously liberal politics sit uncomfortably with Okamura’s well documented demands for the Roma to emigrate to India  and her candidacy for Dawn has been widely seen as opportunistic and eccentric. Tellingly, while Pollwatch 2014’s projections which include national polling for Dawn suggest Samková will take a seat, both SANEP’s polls which focus more directly on the lead Euro-candidates suggest she will not.

 More ideologically eurosceptic groupings such as the Party of Free Citizens (SSO) and Czech Sovereignty (ČS) have in the past done by the standards of extra-parliamentary parties, but seem unlikely to clear the 5 per cent hurdle required to gain an MEP in May.  These parties lack of resources and the political disarray and disappointment caused by Václav Klaus’s decision, after much wavering, last year not to lead a new conservative eurosceptic alliance.

 Wot no euroscepticism?

 The so-far indifferent performance of the Czech Republic’s well-established eurosceptic parties is at first glance surprising. In recent years Czech public opinion has become markedly more sceptical towards European integration. Support for joining of the Euro has collapsed making the Czechs, according the latest Eurobarometer data, the biggest doubters over the single currency after the Brits and Swedes, while STEM polling found trust in the EU in the Czech Republic is at its lowest since 1994.

Euro adoption

 Czech voters are also markedly more disillusioned with the experience of EU membership than electorates in some other new member states. In neighbouring Slovakia, for example, according to polling commissioned by Czech TV, a clear majority of those polled see EU membership as having had a positive effect, while in the Czech Republic the majority saw the Union’s impact as either negligible or negative.

While eurosceptic views have major and perhaps increasing traction, the eurosceptic parties that assiduously propagated them for years have not – and eurosceptic wannabies such Dawn do not seem to be profiting.

The paradox is explained partly by EU’s lack of salience and the Czech public’s ignorance of – and disengagement from – European institutions and elections. SANEP polling suggests that, as in 2009, some two thirds of the Czech electorate will simply not bother to vote. However, it also reflects a mismatch between supply of and demand for eurosceptic policies. Wealthier, better educated voters on the political right have always tend to be pro-European and at odds with conservative free market euroscepticism offered by Civic Democrats – backing the party in its heyday despite not because of its ‘eurorealist’ stance.  Czech eurosceptic voters tend to be older, poorer and more left-wing but do not now – perhaps even in the Communist Party – find a force on the left giving full voice to their frustration and disillusionment with European integration.

 Many voters, whatever their levels of Euro-enthusiasm or -disgruntlement, may recognise that there are few realistic options for a small Central European country like the Czech Republic other than to go with the flow of EU integration and seek from time to time to make a well-placed touch on the tiller.

 It is precisely such resigned but hard-nosed realism that seems to animate the pragmatic new Euro-politics of ANO. This well-pitched message may well deliver Andej Babiš’s movement a further round of electoral success.

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